Slinger Slings it Hard
A Review of Slinger Sanchez Running Gun, by Bruce Glikin
From the first page of Bruce Glikin's 1998 novel Slinger Sanchez
Running Gun - where aspiring Olympian and main character Jesse Sanchez
nearly gets whacked by some nasty teenager while warming up for
the 2000 Olympic Trials 800 meters - it's clear this novel wants
to go beyond the story of a star athlete overcoming the odds. It
wants to get real with what the author considers the environment
of world-class track and field.
That is both its bounty and its burden. The author takes us on
an often-thrilling ride through the upper echelons of the sport
through the eyes of a character that basically proves himself the
best middle distance runner of all-time. But in creating a picture
of the rough-and-tumble world of this scene, and Sanchez's upbringing,
he paints with some very broad strokes - while getting, at times,
too rough for my liking. This book is clearly a necessary addition
to any mature runner's library; there are so few books like this
out there that they become necessary by their existence. But it
grated on me even while it entertained and enchanted.
At its best, this book is a fantastic (as in, almost like a fantasy)
tale of a young man of Mexican and Irish heritage who has to overcome
everything from a rough upbringing and economic disparity to a corrupt
national federation and a deceptive lover. Jesse Sanchez is hot-tempered
and sometimes impulsive, but at the deepest level, a paragon of
athletic purity and virtue. His Scottish coach, Kevin McClanahan,
is a pariah and loose cannon to the powers that be in the sport,
yet a messiah to Sanchez and his dedicated charges. The story is
one of their mutual indomitable love for the sport that rolls from
Sanchez's stunning, unexpected success, to his wrongful banishment
from the sport, and finally to his ultimately triumphant return.
The racing and training passages mostly feel right in their accounts
of high-intensity running on the edge. Competitive runners can identify
with the stress and self-doubt created by aches and injuries, and
the exultation of Jesse when he produces record performances. In
fact, there's enough description that even those who don't know
much about track can be educated on some of its structure and meaning.
In the first few pages, for example, the pending Trials 800 is described
as "two revolutions of merciless burning, a war of sinew and
nerves. It would be a frantic overdistance sprint of flying elbows
and gnashing spikes. It was a race where runners never caught their
breath, a battle where intuition and reaction devoured planning
Maybe a little over-dramatized, but I'm guessing you Marc Sylvesters
and Andre Buchers out there would agree. Other details involve the
benefits of track spikes and a clandestine meeting between an investigator
and steroid "guru" that serves as a primer about drugs
in the sport. The racing, whether from the Trials 800, Jesse's European
circuit baptism or his final triumph in Eugene, is gripping and
The story blends the real history of the sport with fictional characters.
Published in 1998, it takes us through the author's vision of the
2000 Trials, and Games in Sydney, to the 2004 season with its Athens
Olympics. But the performances by the book's athletes are well beyond
our current standards. Some characters clearly represent real-life
individuals. And Glikin adds enough real-sounding Moroccan, Kenyan,
Ethiopian and Algerian stars that maybe if your friends and family
read the book, their eyes won't glaze over the next time you're
shouting about the latest record attempt by Hicham El Guerrouj.
Glikin also conveys the relationships in the sport well. The synergy
of coach and athlete is captured, for example, after Jesse's coach
delivers some pre-race strategy: "Sanchez felt a chill go down
his spine. McClanahan had read his mind. It was exactly the type
of race he'd envisioned running, but was fearful of attempting."
The author also does a nice job with the BS-ing between coach and
athlete, and between athletes themselves. One passage during Jesse's
rehab with his "running bums" is particularly effective.
A nice narrative touch involves the e-mails exchanged between Jesse,
his coach, his mother and his girlfriend.
Glikin obviously has the best intentions and is committed to telling
it like he feels it is. The rawness works in some places, but overall
seems unnecessarily harsh. I said the book was a must for the library
of any "mature runner" earlier because if I were a parent,
I wouldn't hand it to anyone under 14 or 15 - due to the profanity,
violence and other adult elements. Sure, young teens are exposed
to these things, but parental discretion is advised.
Jesse and his coaches are certainly tough, street-savvy characters
that fight first and talk later, but when this comes to fruition
it's overdone. Jesse's romance (and romantic betrayal) with a character
named Shauna is thankfully handled with more discretion.
Glikin obviously wants to portray the real-life corruption of track's
national and international governing bodies with the not-so-cleverly
disguised NATF and ITF and their thinly veiled leaders. (Guess who
"Primo Magiano" is?) But his Evil Empire portrayal is
overblown. In one passage, a Kenyan co-star is lamenting Jesse's
place: "The American had been asphyxiated by politics. It was
the same fetid stench that had suffocated the Kenyan's early career.
The effluence had spewed from open sewers, communal cesspools shared
by global autocracies. He viewed their power as all-consumptive,
cold-blooded cartels that systematically destroyed hope and life."
Well, excuse me if I step outside to get some fresh air so I don't
suffocate. Journalists with dusky moles, agents who pick their noses
and even coaches (with the exception of Jesse's) are pretty much
scum as well. The political view is completely one-sided towards
the athlete; the athlete as victim. I'm not Mr. Big Supporter of
track's governing bodies, but some balance would have been welcome.
And in contrast to the metronome-like pace by which Jesse clicks
off 100s in a race or workout, the pacing of Glikin's work can be
much less even. The opening sequence of the 800 is melodramatically
drawn out. Things go OK for awhile, but when Jesse suffers his wrongful
suspension, it's not only him that gets detoured. We first endure
drama in a Montana hick town - with three chapters wasted on an
incident that's ludicrous, drawn out and unnecessary. Then I'm stunned
the way Sanchez drops the sport so quickly after an injury, symbolically
dropping shoes in a trash can, leading to a two-year disappearance
(and two-year gap in our story).
Fortunately, he comes back and justice is mostly served. Effective
rehab sequences eventually lead to the revealing European tour that
is a highlight of the book. But while I can see Jesse's attraction
to Seville (his first stop), do we really need the three-page travelogue?
Our hero's fitness reaches incredible levels once again, highlighted
by an incredible time trial with his newfound Kenyan friend. But
when more health problems threaten to take Jesse out for good, the
plot takes rapid turns to his final redemption that whisk by us
like Mo Greene in a 100. Crucial decisions to retire and come back
are too quick, strange and easy, rushing us into the book's conclusion.
It's almost as if Glikin met up with an editor who kept too much
fat in some places and not enough in others.
All that said, the payoff is worth it. Do I still say it's a must-read?
Yes. Was I able to put it down each night as I read it? Not until
I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. Despite my nitpicking,
I still found it as gripping as most anything I've read. The journalist
in me wanted a cleaner, smarter, more sophisticated read. The hard-core
runner and drama king in me didn't care.
So get the book. Unless you're a journalist, you probably (like
Bill Rodgers, Jeff Wells and other champion reviewers on the back
cover) won't care about my complaints. And even if you do, you'll
still hold a treasured place for it.
Buy Slinger Sanchez
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